Rise of the Civic Startup

Americans put great faith in our scrappy, innovative startup businesses to create jobs, solve problems, and harness good old-fashioned ingenuity. Over the last decade unprecedented technological advances and urbanization -- along with the weaving together of information, communities, and communication technology -- created an opportunity for startups to enter the civic realm. Small companies with a dream have fed this evolution, radically improving the potential of our communities in the process. But the government sector has largely lagged behind. Now is the time to change that.

In 2014 as a country we will spend around $140 billion on technology for government. Compare that to a $10 billion video game market and a $2 billion iOS app market and you get a sense for the scale of the dollars being spent to tackle technology problems. Whereas in the past the country's tech giants have cornered that market, a new kind of startup is getting in the game. Leading the charge is Code for America and their selected Accelerator companies. These civic startups are changing things.

The idea that technology can make government better is gaining momentum. By assembling some of the country's top civic startups in their inaugural startup accelerator (seven companies out of more than 250 applicants), Code for America is demonstrating that there is a real opportunity for a new generation to fundamentally improve the way governments work and communicate with their constituents -- and at a fraction of the cost of traditional community involvement efforts.

I simply believe cities are better when citizens are involved -- that a stronger connection between citizens and their governance will revive citizenship and save government. We must engage citizens in real dialogue, connect community makers, and shift the focus from citizen as a consumer of government, to citizen as a community contributor.

It's working. From San Francisco, to Omaha, Neb., to Washington, D.C. we have seen everything from new crosswalks, to car charging stations, to large infrastructure projects bubble up from a community conversation. Today an awake and nimble government has the capability to empower collective action and to harness the muscle of the community doers. Every major city in the country is hiring chief technology or innovation officers, to break down technological barriers to new government. None of that would be possible without a shift in the way we conceive of government -- and the outdated rules that make it resistant to change.

Technology doesn't fix problems, engaged citizens do. Civic startups are the crucible where new tools are being rapidly deployed to make government work better, reveal the goodness of civic purpose, and tap into the contributions of a generation of technologically savvy upstarts looking for a niche. With a little encouragement these startups might just make our government work better and provide a much-needed jolt of economic development in the process.